A Look Back: The Thanksgiving Story
It is now November, and many of us are gearing up to celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of the month. Before then, however, many schoolchildren will once again have the traditional Thanksgiving classroom lessons: Pilgrims in buckled shoes, Indians with feathers in their hair, turkey, and so on.
But if you are an avid reader of the NPL Children's Blog, you may remember a series of blog posts in which we discussed how to best address the racism in classic children's literature. In my contribution to that series, I wrote about a still popular picture book account of the "first" Thanksgiving.
The problem with the story told in that book—which is told in many classrooms as well as family homes—is that it is not accurate. Thanksgiving is not a tidy story about food, friendship, and friendly Indians that graciously fade into the background in favor of pilgrims and colonists. The real history is a difficult and complex story about conflict, violence, and colonialism.
In that blog post, I suggest that instead of continuing to tell a story marked by "fabrications, misrepresentations, and racist tropes," we instead teach about Thanksgiving using a different starting point, that of the people who were already here when the Mayflower Separatists arrived from England: the native Wampanoag, and other nations that encountered Europeans.
So we have a new starting point. But where do we go from here? Or rather, are there books and resources that we can use to tell a more accurate story of Thanksgiving? Yes, there are!
In this blog post, I will be highlighting several books (all available in our collection) and resources available online. Teachers can use these to create lesson plans appropriate for younger children, or scale them up for older school-age students.
I will also share other books that shift the focus away from "Pilgrims and Indians" to more culturally responsive themes: thankfulness and gratitude, harvest time and the changing seasons, gathering with loved ones, and how food gets to our tables. Many of these books are by Native creators, centering Native stories and perspectives. These books deserve a place in your classroom and your bookshelf not just in November, but all year long.
Thanksgiving from a Native Perspective
Published just this year, Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun's Thanksgiving Story tells the story of the "first" Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Wampanoag, without whose help the Separatists would not have survived their first winter in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. This important picture book is appropriate for even preschool children, and is an ideal starting point from which to teach about Thanksgiving in the 21st century. For a bevy of resources to use in the classroom, check out the book's website.
Giving Thanks and Practicing Gratitude
We Give Thanks is an adorable picture book about giving thanks for both the mundane and the marvelous things in our lives. Bikes and skates, beetles and bees, plates and ladles—they're all things to be grateful for, and a friendly rabbit and frog teach us how. This is a perfect book for preschool storytime.
The Changing Seasons and Their Bounty
In the United States, Thanksgiving often marks the end of autumn and the start of the winter holiday season. We also spend time talking about harvest season, and preparing food for the holidays and the colder days ahead. In This is How I Know, an Anishinaabe child and her grandmother survey the changes each season brings to their home. This bilingual book in Anishinaabemowin and English is a tender look at how to live in relationship with nature and each other.
From the Farm to Our Table
The ingredients with which we make Thanksgiving dinner don't just magically appear on our supermarket shelves. It takes a lot of hard work by a lot of people to get our food to us in the first place. In Before We Eat: From Farm to Table, rhyming text introduces young readers to the different occupations that make our food system possible. Farmers, growers, pickers: they all play a part in making Thanksgiving possible, and recognizing that is a great way to practice gratitude.
People of all backgrounds use the Thanksgiving holidays to gather together with loved ones. In Grandma's Tiny House: A Counting Story! a large extended family gathers at Grandma's house to share a meal. But between all the food and all the neighbors, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and grandkids, the house is about to burst! What will everyone do? This adorable book is a great way to share both rhymes and numbers with very young children, including toddlers.
For many people, Thanksgiving is all about the food. No matter the holiday, families put their own cultural spin on what is offered at the table. In Hungry Johnny, a young Ojibwe boy wants nothing more than to eat the wild rice, frosted rolls, and other delicious foods his Grandma has prepared for the community feast. It's hard to wait, but Johnny knows the rules: elders eat first. This depiction of present day Indigenous life shows that gratitude, patience, and respect are important values for all us to cultivate, regardless of our backgrounds.
Additional Resources for Teaching Thanksgiving
For a wealth of information about Native representation in children's literature, be sure to visit the American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) blog. The National Museum of the American Indian has online exhibitions and classroom resources searchable by grade level and topic. Of particular note is their packet on teaching Thanksgiving.
Oklahoma City Public Schools have an entire department of Native American Student Services, and their Native Knowledge informational handouts are available online to help educators "increase their cultural awareness and knowledge about Native American people." OCPS also has an entire booklet of Thanksgiving lesson plans from a Native perspective available for download. This invaluable resource includes book suggestions and craft ideas.
For a longer list including the above discussed books, along with others that can be used across the classroom curriculum, check out the catalog widget below. It includes fiction and nonfiction, picture books, and informational texts. Included along with the books are brief descriptions of each book's themes to help guide your planning. Wherever applicable, I include the author's or authors' tribal affiliation. When teaching using Native resources, it is helpful to speak about specific nations so as to recognize the diversity of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.
Also, don't miss our NPL staff curated list of diverse picture books featuring Native Americans, American Indians, First Nations, and Indigenous children. Diverse books are for everyone, and they should be read in our homes and classrooms year round.
A New Look at Thanksgiving Using Children's Literature
Finally, if you want to deepen your reading around Indigenous history in what we now call the United States, check out the suggestions under "You might also like." It is not an always easy proposition to reconsider long held assumptions about Thanksgiving, but we owe it to our children to tell them the truth—now that we know better, let's do better.